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Road to compassion

P Anima | Updated on March 10, 2018
Warning signs: India had the most number of road deaths in 2013, more than double that of China which is in the second place, according to a WHO report. Photo: Manoj Kumar

Warning signs: India had the most number of road deaths in 2013, more than double that of China which is in the second place, according to a WHO report. Photo: Manoj Kumar

Crowd-sourced: In the absence of an effective emergency medical-care system, road accident victims in India are doubly dependent on good Samaritans. Photo: G Karthikeyan

Crowd-sourced: In the absence of an effective emergency medical-care system, road accident victims in India are doubly dependent on good Samaritans. Photo: G Karthikeyan

To the rescue: The central government has strengthened the helping hands of bystanders with guidelines and standard operating procedure that protect good Samaritans. Photo: CH Vijaya Bhaskar

To the rescue: The central government has strengthened the helping hands of bystanders with guidelines and standard operating procedure that protect good Samaritans. Photo: CH Vijaya Bhaskar   -  The Hindu

For all practical purposes, India now has a good Samaritan protection law, leaving bystanders with no excuse to walk away from accident victims

Mumbai resident Devender Ambedkar runs a bicycle repair shop in Borivali. A little past four on a warm December evening in 2014, he had set off on his motorbike on an errand. Spying a swelling crowd a few metres away, Ambedkar instinctively knew it was an accident. “I wanted to see if it was someone I knew,” he says. The blood-soaked injured man was thrown face down on the ground. Kneeling beside him, Ambedkar had turned him over.  To his relief, it wasn’t an acquaintance. But the man was breathing and Ambedkar couldn’t just walk away. With the help of a few others, he shifted the wounded man into an autorickshaw. The accident site fell between two hospitals. One of them was closed, so the good Samaritans headed for the other. Only to walk straight into a wall.

 The hospital reportedly refused to admit the accident victim without an advance fee payment of ₹20,000. Ambedkar and his fellow do-gooders managed to raise ₹11,000 between them and tried to persuade the hospital staff to start the treatment. In the meantime, the victim had been identified as the owner of a local driving school. His relatives were informed and they promised to arrive at the hospital with the money. “The doctor refused to touch the patient until the formalities were completed,” Ambedkar recounts. An hour slipped away and, in desperation, the rescuers decided to call for an ambulance to shift the victim to another hospital. But it was too late. The man died.

 The media was quick to report the hospital’s failing, but no FIR was registered. Ambedkar was advised against filing a complaint on the pretext that it would delay any monetary compensation due to the dead man’s family. Over a year has passed, but the lamentations of the dead man’s relatives still ring in his head. “They came with ₹1 lakh and said, ‘Now give me back my brother’.” Ambedkar rued the absence of laws that empower good Samaritans and obligate hospitals to treat accident victims.

 He continued to aid accident victims despite his bitter experience. Now, finally, the central government has strengthened the helping hands of people like Ambedkar with its guidelines and subsequent standard operating procedure (SOP) for protecting good Samaritans. Upheld by the Supreme Court, the move also comes as a small, albeit hard-won victory for road safety activists. The SOP, binding in all states, now ensures that the good Samaritan who makes the call to the police after an accident has the right to privacy. To be a witness or not will be his/her choice.

To come this far has been a lesson in adapting, lobbying and persevering for the Save Life Foundation (SLF), which had in 2012 filed in the SC the public interest litigation that eventually led to the guidelines and SOP. For founder and CEO Piyush Tiwari, saving accident victims became a priority after he lost a family member in a road accident. The high fatality rates strengthened his resolve. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, road accidents cost 1,41,526 lives in 2014, 1,37,423 in 2013 and 1,39,091 in 2012.  

 “People lying injured on the road die despite having treatable injuries as they don’t get care on time,” Tiwari points out. The Law Commission of India report on emergency medical care for road accident victims says that 50 per cent of those killed in road accidents could have been saved with timely hospital care. And the care in question is basic. The World Health Organisation’s Global Status Report on Road Safety 2015 has India leading with 1,37,572 road deaths in 2013; it has, in fact, held this dubious distinction since 2007. China is at a distant second with 58,539 road deaths.

At SLF, Tiwari and team tried to get to the story behind the numbers. In their nationwide study, three out of four people they interviewed were reluctant to help accident victims. “People would stop to see what was happening, but not take the next step to assist and make the phone call to the police,” says Tiwari. ‘Apathy’ was an easy label, but often not the reason. “When there is a bomb blast, a building collapse or a train crash, it is the passers-by and bystanders who help. So why were they hesitant during road accidents?” asks Tiwari. An overwhelming majority of the respondents cited police intimidation, detention in hospitals and protracted court cases as their reasons for holding back. In the absence of an effective emergency medical-care system, road accident victims in India are doubly dependent on good Samaritans. SLF approached the apex court to clear the way for a legal and ethical environment that empowers passersby.

The court, however, was not their first choice. Their hands were forced after the government failed to accord adequate importance to the issue. When the petition was filed in 2012, the government had argued that police questioning and court procedures were necessary under the existing law. The petitioners, in turn, argued that the procedures were unconstitutional. “Preservation of life is paramount and any procedure that comes in the way of preserving life, a constitutional right, was unconstitutional,” says Tiwari.

In the meantime, the issue of good Samaritan protection entered the mainstream discourse. Television shows discussed it, questions were raised in Parliament. The buzz helped. In October 2014, the new government submitted an affidavit on the need to protect good Samaritans. Guidelines were issued. When it was observed that the guidelines were not followed by the states, the SOP was issued, which the SC upheld in early March.

 “So, for all practical purposes, India has a good Samaritan protection law. Non-compliance will amount to contempt of court, which comes with jail terms and fines,” says Tiwari. With protection in place, road safety activists are readying for another marathon — creating awareness. “When we did training programmes [to assist accident victims] earlier, we could never give people the confidence to use that training,” he adds. In the long term, the organisation hopes to get good Samaritan rights and accident assistance training included in school syllabus. 

 “A pious initiative,” is how a senior official at the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways calls the guidelines. “We are perfectly in line with it. The implementation requires sensitisation of the police and hospital authorities,” he adds. While the states will take measures to propagate the SOP, the Ministry will also come out with awareness programmes. “We are working on some creative ideas,” the official says. 

Sensitising the police — often the first response team, as also the ones passers-by are most wary of — is a big part of the project. Inspector General of Police (Surat Range) Narasimha Komar’s ambit includes NH8, one of the busiest highways in the country. “Several industrial townships dot the highway, which links Mumbai to Delhi. Heavily loaded as well as fast-moving vehicles make up the traffic,” he says. The region reports around 2,700 road accident fatalities every year. With the SOP in place, training of police personnel is underway. “Around 900 of my personnel have so far been trained in accident care and the SOP,” says Komar over the phone. The SOP becomes effective when an organic relationship evolves with the local people. “Their rights are in place. The community should help us identify culprits. We’ll cause them the least inconvenience. Be a friend of the police,” he says. The efforts will take time to show results, he adds. 

Rajeev Narayan, who works with a Delhi-based NGO, believes the guidelines will be effective only if people take pride in being a good Samaritan. “Every time you take an injured person to the hospital, you’re asked, ‘Is this a relative?’ Why should we be taking only relatives to the hospital? Good Samaritans should be a volunteer-driven movement,” he says. Narayan has undergone the training to assist accident victims. An awareness of law is equally important, he adds. There are misconceptions aplenty, topping which is the wrong belief that the injured must necessarily be taken to a government hospital.

“One should take the injured to the nearest hospital, even if it’s a private one. A year and a half ago, I took an injured person to a private hospital. The doctor suggested a government hospital. I told him if he refused first-aid, I could drag him to court. The patient was immediately admitted,” he says.

 A good Samaritan for about eight years now, Narayan encounters the hesitant ones often enough. When a girl was gravely injured in an accident near the Palam flyover in Delhi recently, as many as ten cars refused to stop to help. “Despite assuring passersby that I’m trained and can handle things till we reached the hospital, no one stopped. I could see that the injured girl was likely to become unconscious in a while. I had to make sure she didn’t fall asleep even while trying to find the means to reach a hospital. Finally, a car stopped. I even offered to get the car-seat dry cleaned. We managed to reach the hospital on time,” he recounts.

Efforts to popularise the SOP are underway, including the use of social media and radio campaigns. The movement encompasses police and medical personnel. States are being prodded to have their own Good Samaritan law. Karnataka is set to become the first to have one. If harassment persists, Tiwari is ready to file contempt applications.

Justice KS Radhakrishnan, who heads the SC’s Road Safety Committee, considers this a “major movement forward”. He believes that more people will now come forward to help accident victims, but emphasises the need for proper training. “People who live in accident-prone areas should be given training,” he says.

Meanwhile, a few of the families of those bereaved by road accidents have come together to form Colors, the Coalition for Road Safety. This is to ensure that their collective voice is heard and that issues of road safety are not swept aside for want of adequate representation. “When you approach a family that has lost someone in an accident, it is construed as being opportunistic. We don’t have a grief counselling system,” says Tiwari, who realised his personal loss offered a means to reach out. “We encourage them to talk and join the initiative. Things cannot change until we’ve people who are angry enough.”

 “Who better than me?” asks Dr Shubhangi Tambwekar. The Bengaluru-based doctor, who lost her 23-year-old daughter in a road accident in September 2014, is the trustee of The Arundhati Foundation, which is a part of Colors. “My daughter was riding pillion; the rider and pillion were wearing helmets.” A doctor like her mother, Arundhati was pursuing her post-graduation in Vellore. She was engaged to be married. “And in a minute, it was over. A family destroyed. We are just statistics for the government,” says Tambwekar.

 The doctor draws an analogy between road fatalities and epidemics. “Both are completely preventable. All one needs is a little discipline and better roads.” She sees the guidelines as a call to passers-by to do their duty. “Call the ambulance, call the police. And you’ve helped.”

Guidelines for the golden hour

- A good Samaritan who makes a phone call to the police to give information about an accidental injury or death, may not reveal personal details

- The option of becoming a witness in the matter shall solely rest with the good Samaritan

- If a good Samaritan chooses to be a witness, his/her examination by the investigating officer shall, as far as possible, be conducted at a time and place of his/her convenience

- The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare shall issue guidelines stating that all registered public and private hospitals are not to detain good Samaritans or demand payment of registration or admission costs

- Lack of response by a doctor in an emergency situation pertaining to road accidents… shall constitute ‘professional misconduct’

- The good Samaritan shall not be liable for any civil or criminal liability

(Highlights from the guidelines and SOP)

Published on May 27, 2016

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